How to get back in touch with your hunger and fullness cues

Hunger often gets a bad rap, like some Disney villain out to trick us—especially when we’re trying to lose weight. #sigh

But really, hunger isn’t here to hand you a poison apple. It’s a normal, necessary biological response, hardwired into us to keep us alive.

Why do we even get hungry?

Simply put, hunger is your body’s way of saying, “Hey, I need fuel.” Just like breathing—you don’t think about it, your body just knows when and how to do it to keep you from suffocating. Hunger is your body’s reminder to refuel, so you don’t run out of energy.

At least that’s how things should be.

Our culture has turned us away from listening to our hunger, making it hard to recognize when it’s actually time to eat. This often leads us to over-rely on calorie counting or macro tracking (hello, stress), or worse, feel dizzy and out of whack without knowing why. And if you can’t tell you’re hungry until you’re ‘hangry,’ chances are you won’t realize you’re full until you’re uncomfortably so.

This disconnect makes us feel like we can’t trust our bodies or ourselves around food, spiraling into crash dieting and disordered eating patterns.

Benefits of being able to identify hunger and fullness

Research backs this up, but to keep this short, here’s the gist:

  • Recognizing when you’re hungry can help you avoid that nasty ‘hangry’ mood and prevent overeating.
  • Eating regular meals helps curb the out-of-control feelings at night, because you’re not famished by dinner time. Hint: You might not actually be a late night snacker. You could be an early in the day chronic under eater. 😉
  • When you’re in tune with your hunger, you won’t need to obsess over portion sizes or calorie counts as much. It’ll be easier to sense what your body needs and when you’re satisfied.
  • Better energy and blood sugar regulation. The body thrives on predictability. Eating in regular intervals – particularly if you have a protein, carb, fat, and fiber on your plate can stave off that 3 pm “crash” and help you be more regulated physiologically and psychologically.
  • Promotes weight maintenance, which is better for us than weight cycling, a byproduct of constantly being on the yo-yo diet hamster wheel. Can also make fat loss more sustainable.

How to get back in touch with your hunger signals.

Regaining the ability to recognize hunger and fullness is a skill, which means it takes practice.

If your eating patterns are all over the place—maybe you’re a chronic breakfast-skipper, or you’ve been dieting on and off for years—your hunger cues might be a bit scrambled. The good news is that sensing your hunger is a skill, which means you can learn how to tap back into what your body is trying to tell you.

Here’s a Plan to Start:

  1. Establish a Routine: Try eating every 3 to 5 hours. This helps you predict and manage hunger better.
  2. Check In with Your Hunger Cues Using the Hunger Scale: Before you eat, check in with yourself. Where do you fall on the hunger scale? Aim to eat when you’re around a 3 to avoid the hangry zone. When you hit around a 5-6 on the hunger scale, that’s usually a sign that you’re satiated.
  3. Keep It Simple: If assessing your hunger feels overwhelming, remember the basics. Feelings of hunger often manifest as a hollow feeling in your stomach, or maybe you start thinking about food more generally. Use that as a signal that your body needs food.

How to tell when you’re full or satiated

Obviously, if you’ve identified hunger, then the next step is to eat. However, the same way that we can’t tell if we’re hungry, we often struggle to sense when we’re full. This is where it can be helpful to eat with fewer distractions or more “mindfully.”

Mindful Eating Tips

  • Try sitting down to eat – preferably with the TV off. If you’re dining alone, totally cool to have a podcast or music on in the background though.
  • Put down your fork every once in a while. That’s it. It doesn’t need to be a life event.
  • Check in with yourself 5 to 10 minutes into a meal. Notice where you land on the hunger scale. If you’re hungry or less than a 5, eat a little more and then check back in. If you feel like you’re somewhere in the realm of a 5 or 6, then you might be done. Wait 20 minutes and see how you feel. If you get hungry during that time, you can always eat a little more.

Remember, it’s just data. Not a reflection of you as a person.

Sometimes when my clients are introduced to the hunger scale, they have a moment of “Oh, wow. I’ve been ping ponging between the more extreme ends of hunger and fullness for a really long time.”

If you have this thought, I want to gently remind you that there’s no morality or shame in this. It’s a very human experience, because to circle back to my original point, hunger exists to keep you alive, so when you under eat or heavily restrict intentionally OR unintentionally, your body is going to do what it can to correct this. #biologybitches

Rather than feel bad about this, I’ll invite you to look at this more neutrally as data and as a chance to learn about yourself and your needs. Sometimes there are emotional factors at play, BUT a lot of the time there’s things happening in the structure of our day and the stressors of our life that contribute to this.

Some questions to ask yourself if you find that you tend to alternate between being ravenous and overly full OR if you notice that you never seem to get the “obvious” signs of hunger.

Consider what your day or meal timing looks like. If you go 6 to 8 hours without eating, it would make sense that sometimes you get super hungry and then you eat more in one sitting.

Alternatively, if you find you never feel obvious signs of hunger, notice you tend to nibble a lot throughout the day. Again not a crisis, but if this is a tendency it would also make sense if you never really feel hungry or full, because you’re always eating something. Again, this isn’t about being “good” or “bad.” It’s just about understanding why you might be having the experience that you’re having.

If you find yourself more hungry than normal reflect on how your sleep has been recently. Poor sleep often means greater hunger. Your body has to get energy somewhere. The solution here is to prioritize sleep.

High intensity workouts can also increase hunger. Again, this isn’t bad. It’s just a way for you to notice how things affect you and adjust accordingly.

There are also times when we need to use external cues and structure outside of the hunger scale. For example, if you’re on a med that kills your appetite, you may have to plan more consciously to eat on regular intervals throughout the day – especially if you find that you feel nauseous, tired, or dizzy when you don’t.

Like all things, this is not one size fits all. It’s one tool in a very big toolbox of ways that we can learn to trust ourselves and better understand our needs. See what it can do for you AND if you need some additional tools or it’s not the right tool for your nutrition needs, that’s okay too!

And if you want some support adopting sustainable nutrition habits to support your activities, health, or body composition (e.g. more muscle or fat loss) goals, this is just one small piece of what I work on with my nutrition coaching clients.

Click here to learn more about working together or to book a free discovery call, so we can connect and see if I’m the right person to help you.